The term government is very broad, it includes ‘elected ministers together with the army of civil servants, advisers, committees and other bodies that are involved in the formulation of policy and the implementation of decisions and services’. When most people mention the word government though, they are mainly just talking about the 100-plus ministers and senior party officials who are appointed by the prime minister and thus form the inner circle that governs the country. I will talk in more detail below about each individual section of Government.
Creation of Government
The party which wins the most seats in the House of Commons at a general election forms the new government. This means that the government must receive 1 more than half of the seats in the Commons to command a majority. The party leader then becomes Prime Minister. If no one party wins half of the seats then we call this a hung parliament. If there is a hung parliament, there are 2 main possibilities of what can happen..
- Two or more parties can agree to work together to govern the country.
- The party with the most seats can also try to govern with a minority of seats in the Commons. If the party can’t get enough support on an important vote, however, it risks defeat, which may force a general election.
More on this below! (under different forms of Government)
There are actually no codified rules operating in the UK to state how a government is formed. Instead it is the natural consequence of the outcome of general elections, and the choice of which party and members will make up the government lies in the hands of the monarch. In the past the King would choose his preferred ministers, and as long as it was felt they could command the support of Parliament would form the government that ran the country on behalf of the government. Now the Monarch plays no active role in choosing government, and simply invites the winner of the general election to form a government. If no party has a majority the monarch will usually wait advisement from the current Prime Minister (as happened in 2010)
Different forms of Government
Minority Government – Minority governments are unusual, unstable and normally short-lived. It is a situation where a party forms a government without a parliamentary majority. Usually a minority government is a caretaker government, waiting for a fresh general election in the hope that it will produce a decisive result. A minority government can never rely on getting its legislation or its financial budgets passed. It can try to build up a coalition of support, however in effect minority governments cannot get much done. They can keep the government ‘ticking over’ and little more.
Coalition government – Governments that are formed using representatives from two or more parties are called coalitions. Coalitions are normally necessary when no single party wins an overall majority in the legislature and would therefore struggle to govern alone. They can also be formed in emergency situations such as a war. In a coalition there are 2 conditions that must be met. Firstly ministerial posts are shared between the two or more parties. This also includes shared cabinet posts. Which posts are given to which party would be the subject of considerable negotiation. The second condition is that there needs to be an agreement among all the coalition partners on which policies can be accepted. All the parties need to be willing to give up some policies and perhaps agree on some of their rivals’ policies. There are also a number of different type of coalitions which can occur:
- Majority coalitions – Normally formed by two parties, to simply create a parliamentary majority. This happened in 2010.
- Grand coalitions – These are coalitions between two major parties, to create an overwhelming majority. This would normally be considered in times of national emergency.
- Rainbow coalitions – These are agreements between a large number of parties, often of greatly varying philosophies. It would usually be one larger party and many smaller ones.
- National coalitions – These are coalitions where all parties are invited to participate. They occur at times of national crisis and are designed to create unity.
Coalitions have become much more common in Britain over the past few years. Until 201o Britain hadn’t seen a coalition since 1945. We are also seeing some coalition governments at work in the devolved assemblies and parliaments, and in local government coalitions are very common, with all combinations of parties being possible.
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
The Prime Minister is the Head of the central government, and along with their chosen Cabinet are accountable for the actions and policies of the government. The role of the Prime Minister is not established by a law or constitution, but created slowly over hundreds of years due to acts of Parliament to run the government and take over many responsibilities, previously done by the Monarch.
Functions of the Prime Minister
- Chief policy maker – Although this role is shared with other ministers, the cabinet and their own party, there is no doubt that the prime minister is the leader in deciding and making government policy. The Prime Minister will also be held accountable for these policies by Parliament.
- Head of Government – This is a function that covers a number of roles. The Prime Minister is in charge of the machinery of government. He can create new departments, as well as abolish them, and also establish committees and policy unity’s. The Prime Minister is also head of the civil service and can seek advice from the many workers and departments. They also chair cabinet meetings determining their agenda and controlling cabinet committees. Perhaps most importantly though, the Prime Minister also includes the responsibility of appointing individuals to different roles in the government e.g. ministers.
- Chief Government spokesperson – The Prime Minister is now expected to be the ultimate source of the official version of government policy to the media. Although other ministers may be called upon to represent the government on various media sources, ultimately it is the role of the Prime Minister to explain objectives and decisions and talk about recent notable events. In effect they are the public “face” and “voice” of the government, and country both at home and abroad.
- Commander-in-chief of the armed forces – This is a role that is exercised on behalf of the monarch who is no longer permitted to become involved in such matters, except on a purely ceremonial level. It is now the decision of the Prime Minister whether or not to commit British troops to battle or to any other role. However the Prime Minister will now likely seek approval from Parliament first.
- Appoint people to various positions – As well as appointing individuals to Government, the Prime Minister also grants peerages (Membership to the House of Lords), senior judges and senior bishops to the Church of England.
- Chief foreign-policy maker – This can mean anything from negotiating with foreign powers, signing treaties and chairing/attending international meetings such as G8 and Nato. It can also mean taking a role in helping to tackle world wide problems such as global warming and poverty. The Prime Minister today must also conduct British relations with the EU.
- Parliamentary leader – Although government ministers play a substantial role in debates and parliamentary questioning, it is the role of the Prime Minister to lead his party in Parliament. They will guide the law-making process with the goal of enacting the legislative agenda of their political party. The government may use whips who are in charge of collecting votes from MP’s and Lords to help the bill pass or fail depending on the party and PM’s wish. The Prime Minister is also expected to participate in Prime Minister Questions (Often shorted to PMQ’s and officially known as Questions to the Prime Minister). This takes place for 30 minutes on Wednesdays at noon.
The Cabinet of the United Kingdom is the collective decision-making body of Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom, and the central policy making unity of Government. It is composed of the Prime Minister and other appointed most senior members of government. Every Tuesday during Parliament, members of the Cabinet (Secretaries of State from all departments and some other ministers) meet to discuss the most important issues for the government, and develop policy. Around 22 different government ministers attend the cabinet with another 11 also being able to attend. Most cabinet ministers are called ‘Secretary of state for ….’which is the highest of three tiers of government ministers, and oversee the whole of a department, such as the Department for Education. There are however some exceptions to this general rule. Follow this link to see all members of the Cabinet. Each Cabinet Minister is responsible for their department, reporting on its progress, decisions and implementation of policy. They will also help to agree policy for other departments.
In the UK all cabinet decision must be collectively supported by all members of the government, at least in public, even if they don’t personally agree with it, or had nothing to do with its formulation. This is called collective responsibility. It also implies that the whole government stands or falls, as one, on the decisions made by the cabinet.
As the formation of the Cabinet is entirely down to the Prime Minister, they will have many choices to make after winning a general elections. Prime Ministers need to decide between a balanced cabinet, containing all shades of political opinion, or to choose a team that is politically united with similar ideologies. They then need to decide upon the 22 or so members that will make up the Cabinet. There are a number of different reasons why a Prime Minister may appoint someone to the cabinet:
- May have close political allies, who have been promised a Cabinet position for support
- May be an individual who can represent an important section of the party
- The PM may appoint a potential rebel, in order to silence them by the discipline of collective responsibility and prevent backbencher rebellions.
- Some individuals may be very popular figures in the public and media
- Some may achieve their position simply by being thought of as extremely able people, who will do a good job in the position.
- May be a senior figure in the party, who should be involved in the central policy making unit.
Although I have mentioned Ministers above there are many other ministers who do not attend the Cabinet but are still vital parts of the government.
While a Cabinet Minister will oversee a whole department, each department often has a number of other ministers who look after more specific sections of that department. These Ministers will report to their direct Cabinet Minister who can raise things at the Cabinet meetings in front of the Prime Minister. The names for these Ministers generally follow a certain pattern (however be aware there are some anomalies). Generally though Below each ‘Secretary of state for …’, are second tier ministers and are known simply as ‘Minister’s of state for ….’. Finally a ‘Parliamentary Under-Secretary of state for ….’ is the lowest of three tiers of government minister in the government of the United Kingdom, junior to both a Minister of State and a Secretary of State. These lower Government Ministers, do not sit in the Cabinet, but are bound by the same political rules.
The Prime Minister is in charge of all appointment and dismissal of Government Ministers. Of course he may seek advice, however ultimately the responsibility lies with them. There are a number of other important features to understand about Government Ministers.
- Because government must have a substantial presence in both Houses of Parliament is always contains a number of Peers. The exact numbers vary, but it usually around 25 members of the government to be Peers, and the other 90 are all MPs.
- All members of government must sit in Parliament, as well as being government ministers.
- MPs from the party that is in government are not members of the the government and are known as back-benchers. Back-benchers from the party in government are not bound by the same rules as front-benchers.
- Ministers are also expected to individually take responsibility for their department. Ministers will often resign if their department makes a serious political or personal error. In practice, this usually means that a minister is responsible to Parliament and must face questioning and criticism.
- All Ministers are also means to share collective responsibility as mentioned above.
- The full 100 plus members of the government would never normally meet together in one body. The cabinet of around mid-twenties number of members does however (more on the cabinet above).
Main Tasks of Ministers
- Set the political agenda
- Determine priorities for actions
- Decide between political alternatives
- Obtain Cabinet and Prime Ministerial approval for policies
- Steer proposals through Parliament
- Be accountable to Parliament for policies and their implementation
- Account to Parliament for the general performance of their department
The machinery of British Government is divided into departments. The precise nature and responsibilities of these departments lies in the hands of the Prime Minister and is constantly evolving. Each department effectively has two heads. One is a minister, the other is a civil servant. While the normal title for the Minister is ‘Secretary of state for…’ the name for the civil servant is ‘Permanent Secretary’.
As mentioned above ( in the Ministers section), the political structure of a government department usually comprises of the ‘Secretary of state’ who is normally a cabinet Minister, with junior Ministers below him or her. To assist these Ministers there will also be number of private political advisers. Their role is to give political advice, conduct research and help Ministers deal with Parliament, the media and the public in general. It is expected that political advisers will give advice that is sympathetic to the political aims of the Government in general. Indeed, many advisers go on to become elected politicians themselves. All Secretaries and ministers are appointed by the Prime Minister, political advisers are appointed by the Ministers themselves.
The Permanent Secretary is the administrative head of a large number of civil servants. He or she will normally have worked their way up through the ranks of the civil service. They are meant to be politically neutral and should not attempt to change official government policy. All their work is expected to take place within the constraints of the existing policy as declared by the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The role of the Permanent Secretary is to lead the large numbers of civil servants working for that department, to conduct research, advise the Ministers and implement policy. More on the Civil Service below.
The top levels of the civil service in each department are appointed from a short list by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Minister concerned. A short list is drawn up by the Senior Appointments Selection Committee, which is made up of a number of senior civil servants. They normally chose individuals who are well established in the civil service, but increasingly are allowed to consider applicants from outside the civil service – for example, from universities or the business world.
Different types of Government departments
Ministerial departments – As talked about above, they are headed by a Government Minister and a senior member of the civil service. Some of these departments, like the Ministry of Defence, cover the whole UK. Others don’t – the Department for Work and Pensions doesn’t cover Northern Ireland. This is because some aspects of government are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Non-ministerial departments – Non-ministerial departments are headed by senior civil servants and not ministers. They usually have a regulatory or inspection function like the Charity Commission.
Executive agencies – These are part of government departments and usually provide government services rather than decide policy – which is done by the department that oversees the agency. An example is the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (overseen by the Department for Transport).
Other public bodies – These have varying degrees of independence but are directly accountable to ministers. There are 4 types of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs).
- Executive NDPBs do work for the government in specific areas – for example, the Environment Agency.
- Advisory NDPBs provide independent, expert advice to ministers – for example, the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
- Tribunal NDPBs are part of the justice system and have jurisdiction over a specific area of law – for example, the Competition Appeal Tribunal.
- Independent monitoring boards are responsible for the running of prisons and treatment of prisoners – for example, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.
The Civil Service does the practical and administrative work of government. It is co-ordinated and managed by the Prime Minister, in his role as Minister for the Civil Service. There are a number of differences between members of the civil service and Ministers.
- Ministers are appointed for political reasons, while civil servants are appointed because they have specialist or administrative skills.
- Ministers are essentially temporary. They hold office as long as the Prime Minister wishes them to do so, or their party is in power.Civil servants are permanent in that they can expect to retain their position, and hopefully climb up the ladder of promotion if they are good enough, whoever may be in Government.
- Ministers are expected to hold political views and they may have a very specific political agenda. They are after all representatives of a government that has won a popular mandate to carry out certain stated policies. Civil servants, on the other hand, must have no political agenda, whatever their private views might be. The information and advice given to Ministers by civil servants should be free of any political bias.
- Ministers are publicly accountable for their performance of their department, while civil servants cannot be held publicly accountable.
Main tasks of civil servants
- Gather information for policy making
- Provide suggestions for different courses of action, by advising on consequences and positives of decisions
- Draft legislation
- Provide briefings for Ministers, and draft answers to Parliamentary questions
- Advise on implementation methods
- Organise implementation of policy
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, devolved administrations are responsible for many domestic policy issues, and their Parliaments/Assemblies have law-making powers for those areas.
Areas the Scottish Government, Welsh Government, and the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for, include:
- the environment
Please note – A new page on devolved powers coming soon! In the meantime take a look on Wikipedia.
Councils make and carry out decisions on local services. Under the UK’s constitution the responsibilities and powers of local authorities are determined by the central government in Westminster. The roles, elections and type of local Government vary massively between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and their makeup. To find out more about Local Government in Britain click here.